I’ve debated with myself about writing this piece. I’m not sure how it will be received by either the public or my community. I’ve been concerned with this topic for a number of years now, and as much as I want to talk about it, I also want to keep it to myself because my views are a minority within my community. Times are changing and people are more open-minded, but the traditional and conventional few continue to have greater influence, and that makes writing this piece a lot harder and a lot more personal.
I belong to the local Arab community, whose history is quite intimate with Singapore’s in almost every aspect: colonial and independence, socio-political and -economic, and race and religion.1 The man who has his name on one of our MRT Stations, our roads, and an entire estate, is my great-great-great-I’m not sure how many more greats-grandfather, Syed Omar Aljunied2. He and the many ancestors of the Singaporean-Arabs came from Hadhramout in Yemen. As a migrant community, we’re part of the greater Hadhrami diaspora across the world.3 Some of us have cousins in Malaysia and Indonesia.
Like the people in the Arabian peninsula (and to some extent the Chinese),4 Singaporean Arab individuals are grouped by their tribes/clans. Aljunied is not a person’s name per sé, but the tribe he or she belongs to. There are Aljunieds, Alkaffs, Alsagoffs, Alhadads, Aljufris, Alhadis, Bagharibs, Bin Shahabs, and many more I can’t recall and don’t know. Of these tribes, the majority claim to be direct descendants of Prophet Muhammad. The Al’s I’ve listed above are some examples. The Bagharibs, for instance, are among those who aren’t. We’ll get back to that later.
What comes with tribe/clan names is what you would expect: the glorification of genealogy and lineage. And as you would also know and expect, those two are commonly and intimately paternal. So, because my father is an Alhadad, so am I, even though my mother belongs to another tribe. And because I am a woman, the Alhadad lineage through my father ends with him, unless me and/or sisters marry another Alhadad. It is a shame, according to my extended paternal family, that my parents have no sons to continue the Alhadad name.
The Arabs, since pre-Islamic times, hold genealogy and lineage very highly.5 In Arabic, the word that encapsulates these two things is nasab. The nasab is valued because it differentiated the ruling and noble classes from the commoners, and therefore the nasab was an intricate element of Arab society and community.6 To ignore or abandon it was to be “excluded from humanity”. One’s nasab or kinship is one’s primary identity before one’s self. In Arab gatherings, events, weddings, and tahlils (death anniversaries), you can hear people asking, “Al-ape?” (What Al [is he/she]?). Till today, genealogists are held in high regard in what is considered a serious occupation.7 This concept of putting community and/or nation before self is nothing new or unique to the Arabs, of course. The Singapore government adopts this with Confucian ideology very well.8
The practice of Islam further prioritised one’s nasab, which now not only identified one’s position in society, but one’s position in the religion and the relationships one has with others of the same religion.9 Consequentially, one’s nasab determined one’s privileges, status, and influence, in all things political, economic, social, and religious. Again, such elitism isn’t unique to the Arabs. It takes place across the world. But when your tribe or kinship claims to be descendants of Prophet Muhammad, these privileges and status transcend our lives on Earth. The descendants are special: our privileges are spiritual in that we will continue to be ‘special’ in the afterlife as well.10
I’m not here to debate or share the justifications or arguments of the tribal claims as descendants of the Prophet. I’m here to discuss the consequences of such claims on the Sharifahs, the female descendants. Sharifah and Syed (for males) are titles, which can be omitted but are preferably kept. If you’re an Alkaff, your name would be Syed/Sharifah [Your Name] Bin/Binte (son/daughter of) Syed [Father’s Name] Alkaff. Sharifahs and Syeds are important identifiers as the tribe names are.
As I’ve explained, nasab is essential in Arab communities. This is more so in the Singaporean Arab Hadrahmi community, where a significant number of us are the alleged descendants of the Prophet. As any tribe goes (Arabs, Chinese, and/or any native tribes), keeping the ties and lineage of your group is important. It’s how the tribe is sustained. The purity of the tribe’s blood is priority. The same is applied to the descendants of the Prophet. Though they exist in various tribes, as a collective they are of the same ‘sacred blood’. They marry among themselves in order to preserve this purity.11 Needless to say, this breeds elitism and racism. I must say however that not all Singaporean (Malaysian and Indonesian) Arabs agree to or abide by this. I will say though that the majority do, and find it shameful and disappointing when they hear and find descendants marrying ‘outside’ the group.
(I’m not even going to talk about the health consequences of the nature of such marriages. Scientific knowledge and data are abundant, but these don’t really matter, as long as you don’t marry ‘too close’ a relative. And how do you define ‘too close’, really?)
As much as Syeds are encouraged to marry Sharifahs as the Sharifahs are encouraged to marry Syeds, the responsibilities are not quite the same. Children of Syeds get to become Syeds and Sharifahs of a tribe because of their ansab (pl. of nasab), but children of Sharifahs who marry out do not. The latter of course are still descendants by blood (though purity is debatable), but not in name. It’s a great ‘shame’ when Sharifahs marry out. Sons are therefore more desirable in our community. It doesn’t matter that my grandfather’s granddaughters are doing much better than their male cousins. Us girls can’t continue the Alhadad name. The nasab carries the community and family honour; you disgrace your parents if you don’t marry another descendant of a tribe. You do not come first before your tribe and family.12
There’s so much value placed on our sacred blood, and yet our ansab remains a key element in our identities and who Sharifahs should marry. Never mind that almost the entire Arab community in Singapore has masuk Melayu (become Malay). We speak Malay more than we do Arabic (some entire generations have lost Arabic as their spoken/Mother tongue due to our assimilation into the Malay-Muslim community), that we cook and enjoy Malay dishes more than Arab ones, that we dress in baju kurongs more than our Arab dress, and that we haven’t visited our homeland, Hadhramout, for many generations. The madrasahs built in Singapore were by the Arabs, to ensure that the Arabic language and Islamic knowledge wouldn’t be lost to the community. Today, only a few Arabs attend such schools. We see more Malay youths attending religious classes than Arab youths. Arabs make up some of the O of Singapore’s CMIO framework, and we will remain a smaller number than the Malays in the Muslim community. However, the ratio of Arabs in the population to those Arabs who attend religious classes are disproportionate. The name doesn’t make the person. It doesn’t determine one’s religiosity or character. Yet, the bloods of the descendants must not be tainted.
Prophet Muhammad never recommended, or suggested this. A man with so much love and passion for everyone he encountered regardless of their race or religion would, I believe, be heartbroken if he knew that his alleged descendants were discriminating others based on their race when it comes to marriage, a relationship he valued tremendously. In a Hadith, the Prophet encouraged marriage between two people of the same kafa’ah, or kufu in Malay, which can be loosely translated into ‘kind’ or ‘parity’.13 It can mean many different things: education, wealth, age, wavelength, race, culture, and/or religion. Too great a difference between husband and wife can make it hard for a harmonious, loving, and supportive union. The Prophet’s words were encouragements, to be taken into context. Muslims however have a tendency to twist his words into commands. Although a ‘Syed/Sharifah’ in the name isn’t the only factor to consider when deciding on one’s companion, marrying one without the name seems to be wrong because they wouldn’t be sekufu (the same kind). It’s an argument the Arab community likes to use when they decide who they should marry. Some Malay-Muslims use this same argument too.
Those who prefer to stick to tribalistic traditions and conventions are somewhat aware that these are socially/culturally constructed. There is no real basis for them. The children of Sharifahs who marry a non-Syed are still descendants because that’s how biology works. Lineage and genealogy may be built on names, but blood knows none.
“Tapi kita cucu Nabi Muhammad, tak boleh lah.” But we’re the grandchildren of Prophet Muhammad, we can’t. Who says? We did. And we can change that if we like. The names and blood we’re obsessing over in this lifetime will be of little value in the afterlife. We won’t be judged by our names and/or by our relation to the Prophet. If a descendant has been an asshole on Earth, I’m sure God is fair not to grant them immunity from hell and/or punishments just because they’re directly related to His Messenger. A male descendant who is misogynistic and abusive during his time on Earth will not be deemed as a ‘noble’ being in the afterlife.
I’m not sure if anyone from the Arab community will read this, and I can’t predict how they would take my words if they do. Many have, and some others, will reject what I’ve discussed. There are many Arab families today who are more open-minded about who their children are allowed to marry, but there are also many others who aren’t.
I have Bugis/Malay blood from both my paternal and maternal sides. Without them, my sisters and I wouldn’t be here, and neither would my parents. Diversity is what grows humankind and humanity. We’re mulling over what it means to be a descendant of the Prophet, rather than what it means to be his follower.
It’s tradition, they say, you have to do it. You can fall in love with anyone. Just fall in love with a Syed.
1 Bajunid, Omar Farouk. “The Hadhrami Arabs in Southeast Asia: An introduction.” In Noryati Abdul Samad (Ed.). The Hadhrami Arabs in Southeast Asia with special reference to Singapore. Singapore: National Library Board, 2010; Nurfadzilah Yahaya. “Tea and Company: Interactions between the Arab Elite and the British in Cosmopolitan Singapore.” In Ahmed Ibrahim Abushouk and Hassan Ahmad Ibrahim (Eds.). The Hadhrami Diaspora in Southeast Asia: Identity Maintenance or Assimilation? Leiden: Brill, 2009; Aljunied, Syed Muhd Khairudin. “The Role of Hadramis in Post-Second World War Singapore – A Reinterpration.” Immigrants & Minorities 25:2 (2007): 163-183; Turnbull, Constance Mary. A History of Singapore, 1819–1988. Singapore: Oxford Press, 1989; Alatas, Syed Farid. “Hadhrami identity and future of Arabs in Singapore.” Al-Majhar 1:1 (1996); Clarence-Smith, William Gervase. “Hadrami entrepreneurs in the Malay world.” In Ulrike Freitag and William Gervase Clarence-Smith (Eds.), Hadrami traders, scholars, and statesmen in the Indian Ocean, 1750s-1960s. Leiden: Brill, 1997; Aljunied, Zahra. “The genealogy of the Hadhrami Arabs in Southeast Asia – the ‘Alawi family.” IFLA WLIC 2013, Singapore.
2 Aljunied, “The genealogy of the Hadrami Arabs,”; Mukunthan, Michael, and Nor Afidah Abd Rahman. “Syed Omar Aljunied.” singapore infopedia.
3 Talib, Ameen. “Hadramis in Singapore.” Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs 17:1 (1997): 89-97; Abushouk, Ahmed Ibrahim, and Hassan Ahmad Ibrahim. The Hadhrami Diaspora in Southeast Asia: Identity Maintenance or Assimilation? Leiden: Brill, 2009; Mobini-Kesheh, Natalie. The Hadrami awakening: Community and identity in the Netherlands East Indies, 1900–1942. Ithaca, N.Y.: Southeast Asia Program Publications, 1999. Southeast Asia Program, Cornell University; Freitag, Ulrike. Indian Ocean Migrants and State Formation in Hadhramout: Reforming the Homeland. Leiden: Brill, 2003; “The world’s successful diasporas.” World Business. Last updated on July 28, 2016; Roff, William R. Studies on Islam and society in Southeast Asia. Singapore: NUS Press, 2009; Ulrike Freitag and William Gervase Clarence-Smith (Eds.), Hadrami traders, scholars, and statesmen in the Indian Ocean, 1750s-1960s. Leiden: Brill, 1997; Boxberger, Linda. On edge of empire: Hadhramawt, emigration, and the Indian Ocean 1880 – 1930s. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002.
4 Khalidi, Tarif. Arabic historical thought in the classical period. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
5 Mohammadi, Adeel. “The Ambiguity of Maternal Filiation (nasab) in Early and Medieval Islam.” MastersThesis. Harvard Divinity School, 2016.
6 Khalidi, Arabic historical thought; Mohammadi, “The Ambiguity of Maternal Filiation,”; “Nasab.” Encyclopaedia of Islam. BrillOnline Reference.
7 Mohammadi, “The Ambiguity of Maternal Filiation,”; Aljunied, “The genealogy of the Hadrami Arabs.”
8 Chua Beng-Huat. Communitarian Ideology and Democracy in Singapore. London: Routledge, 1995; Chong, Terence. The Theatre and the State in Singapore: Orthodoxy and resistance. London: Routledge, 2011; Tremewan, Christopher. “Welfare and governance: public housing under Singapore’s party-state.” In Roger Goodman, Gordon White, and Huck-ju Kwon (Eds.), The East Asian Welfare Model: Welfare Orientalism and the state. London: Routledge, 1998; Chia Yeow-Tong. Education, Culture and the Singapore Developmental State: “World-Soul” Lost and Regained? New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.
9 Mir-Hosseini, Ziba. Marriage on Trial: A Study of Islamic Family Law. London: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, 2000; Mohammadi, “The Ambiguity of Maternal Filiation”; “Nasab”.
10 See also Maxime Rodinson’s Muhammad: Prophet of Islam (London: Tauris Parke Paperbacks, 2002).
12 Alatas, Syed Farid. Hadrahmout and the Hadhrami Diaspora: Problems in Theoretical History ; Joseph, Suad. “Gender and Family in the Arab World.” In
13 I can’t assure the legitimacy of this hadith since I’m not well versed in hadith and its verification techniques. It is a hadith that comes out often when googled on various Islamic websites and Malay-language blogs.
Hadad graduated with a BA in History from Nanyang Technological University. Her Honours thesis explored the history of Malay/Muslim women’s activism in Singapore (1950s-1980s), particularly those associated with the Persatuan Pemudi Islam Singapura (PPIS, Singapore Muslim Women’s Association), from the 1950s to 1980s. She is interested in Islam and gender relations
Illustration by Wan Xiang Lee.